Kevin Woo is one of our longtime writers, and he's always finding great stories to share with readers. His latest, "Stepping Forward," is one of the best articles he's written for us. It tells the story of Sojourn to the Past, a 10-day field trip across several states that educates today's youth about the U.S. Civil Rights movement. It's more than that, though. Students on the trip learn valuable lessons about inclusion, freedom and identity, and their lives are ultimately changed.
Since it's such a great story, I reached out to Kevin for more background on the story and his development of the narrative. I also wanted to know how he see this story applys to meeting professionals.
One+: Why is this story important for meeting professionals to read?
Kevin Woo: What struck me as I wrote this story was how important it is to look beyond your own personal bias or preconceived notion of a meeting destination and as a result reject it as a possibility before you’ve had the time to think about the message you’re trying to send or the atmosphere you’re trying to create for your attendees.
When I got this assignment I thought, “Alabama? It’s probably a regional meeting destination, since no one from a big city would want to go there, so that’s what I’ll focus on.” I was wrong. Selma, Montgomery, or Birmingham, Alabama, may never be on a meeting planner’s Top 10 destinations list but they should be, depending on the time of meeting you’re organizing and atmosphere you’re trying to create. For example, if you’re a meeting planner and your job is to organize an HR or team-building event I can’t think of a better place than Alabama.
Look at what happened throughout the state 50 years ago—protest marches, rioting, beatings, church bombings, assassinations, lynchings, etc. Today, in museums throughout the state, there are tributes to Dr. Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference that stand alongside artifacts depicting the history of the Ku Klux Klan. That’s powerful.
If a meeting planner wants to send the message that a group of people can overcome anything, no matter how difficult the task, walk through a museum in Alabama.
Sure, destinations such as New York or Chicago are more fun, and those cities offer more things to do. But so much of what all of us do each day is tied to working together and for a common cause, I can’t think of anything more powerful than seeing historical pieces from Dr. King and the KKK under the same roof. Fifty years ago, no one would have thought that would be possible.
One+: What was your research and writing process like for this story?
KW: The research process for this story was the longest and most thorough I’ve conducted for any piece I’ve written thus far. I easily read 2,000 pages of background material starting with the Sojourn to the Past binder, ancillary materials that are given to the students, and the book, Walking With the Wind, by Congressman John Lewis.
I read old newspaper clippings from the 1950s and 1960s to get a feel for how the press covered the events at that time, and I watched a lot of videos on YouTube to get an idea of how the events were covered on television.
Most of my time was spent interviewing the subjects. I spent hours talking to them and having them take me through the events of the day and explain how their lives have been impacted in the 50 years since.
I spent a lot of time talking with Jeff Steinberg, who was able to put the information gathered through interviews and the material that I read and watched into context with how he teaches Sojourn to the Past.
One+: What drew you to this story?
KW: I must admit that I never realized I ignorant I was, and still am, about the Civil Rights Movement before writing this story. My only exposure to the Civil Rights Movement was the PBS documentary, Eyes On The Prize, thumbing through old Life magazines when I was a kid and watching the movie Mississippi Burning.
In part, my naiveté is due to the fact that I am too young to remember the events as they happened. What captivated me was the fact that high school students would ride buses for 10-days through five southern states to learn about the Civil Rights Movement. That fact alone fascinated me, and I wanted to know why they did it. As I read about each stop the students made along the way and its historical significance, the light bulb went on. I understood the story, why the sojourn is important, and now I think every high school student should go on the sojourn and be exposed to the people who made history.
One+: What did you learn from the story?
KW: I’m not sure that I fully grasp all that I’ve learned from the story. I am ashamed that I don’t know more about this period of American history. I never stopped to think about my right and duty to vote, but as we approach this presidential election I’m very aware of the people who risked their lives and died for the right to vote. I view this presidential election differently than I’ve viewed past elections.
My “ah ha” moment has yet to come. I’ve been invited to join a Sojourn next year. I’m going to have the chance to meet the people I’ve written about. I’ll have the opportunity to break bread and ride the buses with them; and I’ll have a chance to spend 10 days with 150 high school students as they make commitments to themselves about hatred, what to do when they seeing someone being terrorized, non-violence and whether or not to be a silent observer when they see bad things happen.
Being with Jeff Steinberg, Elizabeth Eckford, Reena Evers and 150 students is going to change my life. Walking into the 16th Street Church with Maxine McNair, Denise’s mom, and standing in parking lot of the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was killed, will, I’m sure, humble me. I’m looking at the trip as one for the ages and something that someone my age should feel blessed to be invited to attend.